Haunted by Kantayra

ReviewsRating: NC-17

Summary: AU after Dead Things. Seven years ago, Spike fled Sunnydale and his abusive relationship with Buffy. Now, he and still-best-friend Dawn are working together in their own demon hunting agency. However, when they're called out to investigate a chain of supernatural murders at Cascade Mountain Lodge, they discover that Buffy's on the case as well. Will they be able to solve the mystery before they become the next casualties? And what does the solution have to do with the events of seven years ago?

Author's Notes: Hey, it's the beginning of a new Spuffy saga! Yes, this one will be rated NC17 eventually. (Aren't they all?) And, yes, I am doing the infamous 'Buffy and Spike in a haunted house' theme, but I'm hoping it will be quite different from all the others out there. However, I do want to warn people that some parts of this will be a bit darker than some of my other sagas. This story assumes that everything through the S6 episode 'Dead Things' occurred, and it deals heavily with the events of that episode - hence, the darkness. Just wait it out, don't trust anything you see, and trust me that things will turn out all right in the end. ~_^

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Prologue-Chapter 4

Prologue

Laura Danvers blinked and shook her head as the man dashed through the entranceway of Cascade Mountain Lodge. For a second she would almost have sworn he was...smoking? in the morning sun.

He seemed fine now, though, as he approached the front desk, and Laura took the time to look him over. Bleached platinum hair, razor-sharp cheekbones, lean muscular body, black leather...and the most haunted look in his eyes... She had expected some sort of cocky swagger as he approached the desk, but instead he seemed meek, unsure...

"Can I help you?" she inquired politely.

There seemed to be a short delay between when she said the words and when he heard them. After the brief pause, he gave her a curt nod. "N-Need a room," he stuttered in an awkward British accent, shifting from on foot to the other.

"It's almost six am," she pointed out, gesturing to the first rays of dawn that were just peeking over the horizon.

He seemed horribly flustered by this, as if he didn't know what to do. "I-I'm sorry," he murmured, eyes looking down.

Dammit, Laura cursed inwardly, why are the cute ones always nuts?

"It's alright," she quickly reassured him, afraid he was going to break out crying any moment. "You want a room for the day then?"

He nodded meekly, and she noticed for the first time that the hand that seemed to be running through his hair was lingering far too long. Almost like he was covering something up...

"You're in luck," she informed him in as friendly a manner as she could manage. "We had an old couple from Kansas check out bright and early this morning...or dark and early, as the case may be," she joked lightly.

He managed a ghost of a smile, acknowledging her attempt. Under normal circumstances, he would've gone for the twenty-something blond in one of his nonexistent heartbeats. She was obviously attracted to him, and a good roll in the hay usually did him wonders. But not now, not after...

"You're lucky the ski season just ended," she continued to chatter about inane topics even though his mind had obviously drifted. "Because when the slopes are running, we're booked solid for - oh my god!"

The concealing hand had fallen downwards as he became more absorbed in his own mental ghosts, revealing the nasty bruise around his eye for the first time.

A wave of nervousness rushed over her at that. He certainly looked the type to be involved in illegal pursuits... "You're not...in trouble, are you?" she inquired nervously. "Because this is a respectable resort, and-"

"Tripped an' fell is all," he hastily reassured her, covering up his eye again, embarrassed.

I'll take domestic abuse for a thousand, Alex, Laura grimaced inwardly. Must've been a big, strong guy to leave a bruise that nasty, too. Dammit, she lamented, why are the cute ones always gay?

"OK," she gave him a reassuring smile. She reached up to the key rack and pulled down the only set of keys on them. "If you'll just sign in..." She heard the sounds of pen on paper. "And, I'm sorry for the inconvenience, but if you could just wait here in the lobby while I call Maria and make sure the room's clean?"

He nodded nervously in response and practically snatched the keys from her hand. His fingers, still cold from the spring Colorado air, brushed against her warmer ones.

She showed no outward reaction to the unnatural chill of his touch and picked up the desk phone while he sat himself down. She bit her lip as she watched his profile. From this angle his bruises weren't visible, and he looked even handsome than she had first thought. Absentmindedly, she read his name from the guest book. William Summers... Dammit, she sighed as Maria picked up on the other end, why are the cute ones always vampires?
 
 

The sounds of the desk clerk's phone conversation faded to nothing as Spike sat slumped in the lobby chair, staring at nothing. He still couldn't believe it. He had actually left Buffy, packed his only bag, jumped on his motorcycle, and just...gone. Already, the voices in his head were whispering to him, telling him that she needed him, that she cared about him, loved him despite everything...

"You've an evil, disgusting thing!"

"You're beneath me."

"The only chance you ever had with me was when I was unconscious."

"You were just...convenient."

"There's nothing good in you."

"I could never be your girl!"

"Soulless..."

"Disgusting..."

"Monster!"

And then it was like everything hit him at once, and a soft sob escaped his throat. It was followed by a second and a third until he buried his head in his hands, wailing out his loss to the world. This was no different from when he'd lost Buffy after she'd leapt off that tower. If anything, she was even further from him now, even further than death...

Because he was nothing. Just a pitiable monster. Of course, she could never love him. What on earth had he been thinking? That a golden goddess like his Slayer could ever look upon an abomination like him with anything other than disgust and loathing...

"Whoa!" Laura's eyes widened in surprise as her guest suddenly started bawling. "It's OK, really," she insisted. "Maria's fixing up the room right now, honest!"

He didn't hear her but clutched tighter at the object in his duster pocket, pulling it out so that he could feel its reassuring silk, remember the girl he loved so much...and that loved him, too...
 
 

"You have to go," Dawn said, still stunned by the story he'd spilled to her in his pain and grief. She gulped at the momentous nature of what she was deciding, but realized that she couldn't still be his friend and advise otherwise. "She's killing you, Spike..."

"It doesn't matter," he insisted bitterly. "I promised 'til the end of the world and-"

"No," Dawn whimpered, tears streaming from her eyes as she looked at the beaten and battered face of her best friend, "you need to leave. Now, before it's too late."

"She din't mean it," Spike insisted. "She was just mad, an' I botched everythin' up again, so-"

"Spike..."

"Was all my fault," he insisted. "'m not good enough for her is all."

"You mean she's not good enough for you!" Dawn countered, enraged. "Why, when I get my hands on that heartless, arrogant bitch!"

"No, Bit," Spike pleaded with her. "You can't let her know that I told you. Wasn't s'posed to tell..."

A cold fire burned in Dawn's eyes at that, not at all unlike that which burned in the Slayer's eyes right before a kill. "You need to leave town, Spike," she said simply. "I need to know that you're safe."

"'m not leavin' you," he insisted vehemently.

"Please, Spike," her face softened as she begged him. "I can't bear to see you like this...not after all we've been through together..."

A sad smile lit up his lips at that. "Can't leave you all alone," he protested slightly, "with her..."

"I'll be strong," she insisted. "I'll deal. Now, go. Save yourself while you still can..."

A bitter laugh escaped him at that. This had to be the only thing that would ever allow him to leave his Slayer. Dawn begging him, still caring about him, absolving him of his responsibilities in Sunnydale...

"Thanks, Bit," he whispered softly.

She smiled at him sadly as untied the ribbon from her hair. She wished she had something more, something better, but she hadn't known when she snuck out to his crypt that this would be the last time she would see him.

"Here," she pressed the silken fabric into his hand, "to remember me..."

He took it from her gently and then, in an uncharacteristic gesture of affection, caught her up in his arms. "I could never forget you, Dawn," he whispered.

"I love you, Spike," she uttered the magic words...
 
 

"Hey, are you all right?" Laura asked, noticing the guest calm down as he stroked a green ribbon, of all things. "Is there anything I can do?"

He looked up at her at that, fingering the lingering bruise over his eye. Dawn's impromptu attempt at a healing spell hadn't been entirely effective, true, but he still treasured it. One Summers broke his heart while the other picked up the pieces...

"'m tired," he said simply, a hint of the old fire in his eyes.

Laura was slightly breathless at the change in him. He suddenly seemed confident, strong...mesmerizing... "I'll show you to your room," she agreed shakily, helping him to his feet and guiding him down the hallway. "If there's anything-" she began, blushing.

And his lips crashed down on hers. Her eyes widened for a moment before she wrapped her arms around him, staggering back with him into the room.

That morning Spike washed the Slayer's scent from him with that of another woman for the first time.

But, what neither of them noticed was the mystical reddish glow that seemed to seep up through the carpet, glittering brighter until, suddenly, it vanished...


A/N: BTW, I changed the timeline so that 'Dead Things' occurred in the spring for the sole purpose of making it seem credible that Spike could drive a motorcycle to a ski lodge in Colorado. Deal with it. ~_^ So, confused? Intrigued? Read on...



Chapter 1: Breaking Up

Seven years later...

"Did you honestly think I wouldn't find out about her?!" Candy's voice screamed, shattering the quiet of the otherwise peaceful office.

"Sweetness-" Spike's rough British accent began.

"I don't even want to hear it!"

There was a loud thump and a crash from the inner office.

Dawn merely sighed and rolled her eyes, as if this were an everyday occurrence. "Check," she announced, advancing her bishop.

Her opponent practically bounced in her seat, her blond locks flouncing gracefully and her rather ample chest jiggling in that way that turned so many men's eyes. Her perfectly manicured hand reached out, plucked her rook off of the board, and placed it down right in between Dawn's bishop and the king.

Dawn frowned. The move seemed quite thoroughly random - the sacrifice of a powerful piece while simultaneously leaving the left flank open - but, then, that was so typically Siggy. Dawn snatched up the rook sacrifice offered. "Check," she repeated.

Another crash sounded from the back room, followed by an outraged roar.

"You crazy bint!" Spike exclaimed loud enough that all of Manhattan probably heard him.

Siggy winced. "What is it that you think that he has broken this time around?" she asked in a heavy Swedish accent. As always, her grammar was perfect, if a little silted and formal.

Dawn grimaced. "Let's just hope it's not another window," she decided, watching in complete bafflement as Siggy's knight seemed to be making the same pointless sacrifice as he rook had. Dawn's own rook slid over to take it.

The other employee at Summers Supernatural Investigations seemed completely unconcerned by this chain of events. Siggy had first encountered Spike in a pub about two years ago, only hours after she'd gotten off of the plane from Stockholm. Given her extreme...assets, going into a pub in a bad neighborhood at one in the morning really hadn't been a good idea, but then Siggy hadn't known the area.

The requisite brawl had ensued, resulting in Spike's victory - as always - and he had promptly decided that his 'rescuee' needed a close up and personal tour of the Big Apple.

Dawn could still remember the way her eyes had rolled when Spike first brought the buxom blond back to their apartment. Thoughts like, Oh no, not another Harmony! had popped to mind. Fortunately, Spike spoke German, a language Siggy had been much more skilled in at the time, so they were at least speaking the same language. Dawn had known Spike to choose much shadier mistresses in the past four years.

However, it wasn't until after a somewhat awkward dinner that Dawn's opinion of the woman had changed. They had been gathered in the living room, sipping wine, when Siggy had abruptly said to Spike out of the blue, "You are very kind for a vampire."

The requisite spit takes had followed with a round of Telephone Translations as an encore, while Siggy explained her situation to Spike in German, so that he could tell Dawn, in turn, in English. It turned out that a truce had existed between the demon and human populations in Stockholm ever since the previous Master of the city had been rousted and a more 'unconventional' one took his place. The situation apparently wasn't too rare in Europe where Masters retained entire cities in their territory for centuries and so kept their number of minions low in order to reduce the risk of a revolt - both from the human populations and from their ambitious underlings.

Having fully awed the pair of demon hunters, Siggy had even had the commonsense not to sleep with the guy - the vampire guy - she'd just met that night. Instead, she'd left, giving Spike a quick kiss on the lips and a giggled "My hero!"

Dawn had liked the woman from that moment on, even though the subsequent sex after Siggy and Spike's third date had been loud enough to keep her up for weeks. Plus, it was hard to pick up employees in the demon hunting industry, especially ones that made such great bait...

"That's it!" Candy's voice screeched from the back room. "I have had it with you!" The door flew open, and the small blond stalked out furiously, Spike right on her heels.

"Pet..." he pleaded, catching her by the arm.

She turned on him furiously then and slapped him in the face. Of course, the human blow couldn't hurt him, but he made a show of wincing nonetheless. "You...asshole!" Candy exclaimed in a white-hot fury. "You think I'm just going to forgive you?!"

"C'mon now, luv," Spike cooed softly, looking up at her from under long, dark lashes. "It was just a one-time thing, honest. Just a li'l slip-up..."

" 'Little'?" Candy repeated. "Here's 'little' for you! We're over! Done! Goodbye, Spike!" she said angrily before storming out of the office, slamming the door behind her for good measure.

"Oops," Spike grimaced, sending an apologetic smile Dawn and Siggy's way. "Sorry you had to hear that, luvs."

"Trust me," Dawn snorted. "We're used to it." She watched Siggy's pawn advance and frowned. "Check," she repeated, moving her knight once more.

"You should not lie to her like that," Siggy commented. "If you wish to take another woman to your bed-"

"Yeah, yeah," Spike grumbled, picking up an opened bottle of JD from the top of the mini-fridge, "'eard it a million times before, poodle." He downed half the bottle in one gulp.

Dawn didn't comment. It was best just to leave Spike alone when he was in one of these moods. Frankly, she had preferred watching Spike and Siggy's break-up. Now, that had been priceless.

After several weeks of non-stop shagging, Siggy had calmly sat across from Spike on the couch one day and delivered the most brilliant speech Dawn had ever heard. In fact, she'd memorized it and quoted it often:

"You are a very attractive blood-sucking demon, and I very much appreciate that when you stare at my chest you do not seem to be thinking 'fuck big tits now' so much as 'must erase pain of the past'. I also fully appreciate your many talents in bed and will miss the excellent sexual intercourse very much. However, I feel the need to be something more than a sexual safety-blanket at the moment. Therefore, I feel that we should just be friends and co-workers for now." Then, she had given his hand a quick squeeze, brushed a kiss across his forehead, and that had been it.

Dawn had done much interrogating in the next few days after that and had gotten a "How the bloody 'ell was I s-posed to argue with that?" from Spike and a "It seems futile to try to win his heart, therefore I mean to analyze it instead" from Siggy. Apparently, she took her given name's etymology - Sigrid: 'victorious counselor' - very seriously.

And it seemed to have been the smart track to take since Siggy was now the only other person Spike opened up to, although she was still nowhere as close to the vampire as Dawn was...

"Checkmate."

Dawn was pulled out of her reverie and stared down at the chessboard in confusion. "Huh?" she said in disbelief.

"That is, I believe, checkmate?" Siggy repeated.

Dawn blinked, cocked her head to one side, stared at the board...blinked again, looked closer...

"She's got you, Platelet," Spike agreed with a chuckle.

"But..." Dawn began in protest, "...damn," she conceded her defeat.

Oh yeah, had she forgotten to mention that? In addition to being gorgeous, demon-savvy, and a brilliant analyst of both the human and vampire psyche, Siggy was also a certified genius. If Dawn hadn't liked the other woman so much, she would have been decidedly jealous.

Having observed this streak in her, Spike had sat her down one day while Siggy was out on assignment and had matter-of-factly informed her, "You're smart, street-wise, a brilliant pickpocket, the best friend 've ever had, and unbelievably beautiful, Bit. If you weren't like my li'l sis, 'd shag you in a heartbeat. So, no need to feel jealous, huh?"

They jury had been out for a while on whether that speech was sweet or creepy, but the first had finally won out. After all, this was Spike.

And, at the moment, her bizarrely sweet vampiric surrogate big bother was staring into the bottom of the empty beer bottle, frowning at the dead roach inside. "Uh...how long was this thing left out?" he asked warily.

Dawn and Siggy both wrinkled their noses in disgust.

"Don't ask me," Dawn retorted. "I refuse to keep track of your messes."

Spike gave her a mock-scowl at that and tossed the empty bottle into the trash...despite the fact that the recycling was only five feet further to the right. "'m goin' out," he announced, snatching his duster from the coat-rack, "get me some roach-free stuff."

"And you are expecting to find the roach-free liquor at Jimmy's?" Siggy couldn't help but tease.

He rolled his eyes heavenwards, muttered something about "bloody women" under his breath, and headed for the door.

"Wait!" Dawn's voice halted him. "Don't you want to hear about our new case?"

"Do I hafta kill anythin' tonight?" he inquired, scarred eyebrow raised.

"No..." Dawn conceded.

"Then you can tell me tomorrow," he decided, leaving the office in a flurry of black leather.

"I swear, sometimes..." Dawn clutched her hands in a strangling gesture.

"You are searching for the word 'pig', perhaps?" Siggy joked lightly.

Dawn smiled at the blond. "It looks like it's up to us to do all the work," she sighed, getting up, pulling the roach-infested bottle from the trash, and placing it in the recycling with a grimace of disgust. "As always."

"Will you be wanting me to research this..." Siggy glanced down at her notepad, "Cascade Mountain Lodge at the library?"

Dawn nodded. "Pull up all the death records from the nearby town as well," she instructed. "Whatever this is, it might not just be localized at the inn."

Siggy nodded. "It is time to change into my skimpy 'surely, you do not really need me to fill out all that paperwork to read this file?' dress," she said with a wink before exiting the office as well.

"Which leaves me," Dawn sighed, "to clean up the mess 'Spike break-up number fifty-three' left behind..."

* * *

Dawn had been furious when she'd gone to bed. Spike hadn't reported in that entire day, and - while it had been cloudy and snowy during the daylight hours - it still made her nervous when the sun was up and he was out. As a result, she'd been trapped in the office all day, taking care of routine business because Spike wasn't there to do his bloody job. Siggy, at least, had come in later that evening, files and folders all clearly labeled and a summary of her findings written in a concise, neatly-typed report.

It had been closing time then, and Dawn had locked up the office, Siggy's research in hand, and gone up to the apartment she and Spike shared above the office space. She'd set out the files on her desk and read while she waited for him to come home...and waited...and waited...

By two am, she'd practically memorized all the police reports she'd gone over them so many times, and Spike still hadn't come home. So she was pissed. Add to that the fact that he had been acting like an ass that afternoon, and she was practically searching for some sharp pointy wood by the time she turned in.

However, one look at his gaunt, haunted features as he stood in the doorway, shivering convulsively, evaporated her anger immediately.

"C'mere," she whispered softly, holding up the corner of the blanket for him.

Gratefully, he slipped under the covers beside her, teeth chattering as he wrapped himself around her body. "'m so cold, Dawn," he whispered against her throat.

"Shh," she agreed, stroking his hair, "I know."

He let out a sound halfway between a laugh and a sob. "I feel so ridiculous," he complained. "'m a vampire. I don't feel the cold!"

"I like to think of you more as a big, cuddly stuffed animal," Dawn teased, wrapping her arms around him, "with fangs."

He chuckled slightly at that, his shivers passing as her body warmed his up. "Damn," he sighed, "I know the cold's just in my head...so why can't I just make it stop?"

Dawn shrugged. "Doesn't work that way," she said simply. "I was worried about you," she added more softly.

He smiled against the curve of her throat at that. "'ll always come back to you, Nibblet," he promised her. "You know that."

"Yeah," she agreed softly, gently stroking his peroxide locks, "what would you do without me?"

"Wither and die." He said it as a jest, but something in his tone indicated that it was the honest truth.

"Don't say that," she admonished, placing an affectionate kiss of the top of his head. "You're the only family I've got now. I can't lose you, too..."

"You won't, Bit," he swore. "As long as you need me..."

"That'll be forever," she informed him matter-of-factly.

A deep vibration rose in his chest at that, and she snuggled against him further. If she had to have a needy vampire roommate who needed to be held at night, at least she had one that purred. It was very nice, very relaxing.

She wondered for a minute whether he had ever purred for Buffy and then banished the thought to the back of her mind. Her sister was a part of her past she had long since abandoned, and she refused to let such thoughts interfere with the treat that was Spike purring.

"Can I?" he requested shyly.

She nodded and tilted her head to one side, hissing as she felt the bones in his face shift and the sharp points of his fangs graze her throat.

"Would never hurt you," he purred.

"I know," she held his head to her neck, breathing heavily. Maybe it was because she was a Slayer's sister, but a warning tingle always ran down her spine when a vampire's fangs got this close to her.

He didn't bite, though, just gently nicked the skin enough to get one drop of blood. "Mine," he whispered.

"Yours," she agreed for the umpteenth time since he had first marked her. It was a sign of possession, she knew, but that wasn't what it meant for them. It was a mark of protection, affection, love - the only love he allowed himself to admit anymore.

"I love you," Dawn whispered, rolling with him as he moved to lie on his back, her head pillowing on his bare chest.

She often thought that was grossly unfair to all the men she dated that she'd grown up thinking of Spike's body as the 'typical' male build. But, hey, it wasn't her fault her male role model had a body that would put a vast majority of professional male models to shame. At least he always had the decency to put on a pair of sweatpants before he joined her, or she was sure all her potential beaus would have yet another standard they couldn't match up to. Not to mention, it would be way kinky.

"I'm sorry," he whispered then, stroking her hair.

"Don't be," she insisted. "You know I'll always be there for you."

He nodded slightly, and the two of them just lay there together for a while, savoring the other's presence.

"We've got an assignment," Dawn finally commented, breaking the comfortable silence between them.

"Yeah, I dimly recall that," he agreed with a sheepish smile, "before my stalkin' off to get drunk, that is..."

Dawn sniffed the air. "You don't smell like you've been drinking," she observed.

"Showered," he admitted guiltily.

Dawn sighed. "Did you even know this one's name?" she inquired.

"'Course, I did!" Spike insisted. "It was Sara...or Kara...maybe Karen..."

"Spike..."

"Yeah, I know, 'if you weren't dead, I'd give you a lecture about STDs'," he did a terrible imitation of her voice.

Dawn couldn't help but smile at that. "Just make sure you take care of yourself," she insisted. "I don't want some crazed, jealous bimbo staking you."

"Won't happen," he assured her.

"You're sure?"

"Sure."

"You're careful?"

"Completely." Spike was lying through his teeth, and they both knew it. "Now, what's this new assignment of yours?" he not-so-subtly changed the subject.

Dawn let him get away with it for the moment. "How would you like," she began, taking his hand, "to go on a vacation with me? Ski resort up in the mountains, cozy lodge-"

"Annoyin' ski-bunny tourists for lunch?" he teased.

Dawn whapped him in the arm. "You might get to kill something mean and nasty..." she sing-songed, holding that tantalizing morsel out for him.

"Mmm, can hardly wait," he agreed. "What's the deal?"

"Fifty thousand."

"Dollars?!" Spike exclaimed, eyes wide. "'d kill the entire place for that. What's the nasty?"

Dawn sighed. "There've been five deaths at the lodge this season alone, all attributed to 'accidents'."

"An' this calls for a supernatural detective agency, how?" Spike inquired.

Dawn bit her lip. "There've been a series of paranormal events," she explained, "poltergeist activity, disturbed psychics - real, Witch's Guild psychics, possessions..."

"Sounds like some soft 'f ghost," Spike pouted. "Can't kill somethin' that's already dead, luv...at least, not that's non-corporeal and dead," he amended.

Dawn nodded in agreement. "That's what I thought, too, at first," she admitted.

" 'At first'," he repeated, one eyebrow raised curiously.

"Before I looked through the historical records," she clarified. "Spike, this happened before, fifty years ago."

"So, the spook's back for an encore," he shrugged.

"At the end," Dawn began, "several of the corpses were found mangled beyond recognition. And," she paused for emphasis, "they weren't murdered within the inn itself. Some of them made it halfway across the country. Whatever this is, it tracked those people down and killed them."

"Which means it couldn't've been confined to the inn," Spike frowned.

"Which means no ghost," Dawn agreed.

"Not 'f the conventional sort at least," Spike added thoughtfully.

Dawn nodded.

"But what stopped it before?" Spike asked. "And why would it return to it's old huntin' grounds?"

"That's what we've got to find out," Dawn agreed before burying her head in his chest and closing her eyes. "Tomorrow..."



Chapter 2: The Ones Left Behind

"Buffy," Nathan said with a distant smile, watching the blond sit across from him in the small diner, "you're late."

"Yeah, well," she hedged, "I got caught up at work, y'know. Ms. Perkins can be a real slave-driver." As can those nasty Hashir Demons that've been terrorizing Spi-er, Shady Hill Cemetery lately... "You're lucky you got me at all," she finished with a perky smile.

Nathan didn't look impressed. "I'm sorry to have inconvenienced you," he commented bitterly into his coffee.

"No," Buffy instantly denied it, "I'm not inconvenienced, really. I've just had a lot of work to do and-"

"At the Administration Office?" Nathan asked in disbelief. "The place was only open 'til noon today. I'm not stupid."

"No, of course not, not stupid," she agreed, mildly panicked now.

"Buffy," Nathan's pained eyes looked into hers, "if there's someone else, I want to know."

"Someone else?" she let out a humorless laugh. "Of course there's no one else." Isn't there? that naughty voice in the back of her mind couldn't help from asking.

"Then, I don't get it!" Nathan exclaimed, banging the table with his fist. "You act like you're interested, like you like me, and then all of a sudden...you're so distant. I feel like I don't know you anymore, like I never did."

That's because you didn't. Only one person's ever known me, and I can never be with him...

"I-I've just been really busy lately," she insisted, wide-eyed.

"You're right," Nathan nodded. "You've been too busy, too busy for me, at least."

"No, I'm really not," Buffy pleaded. "I've got the next two weeks off. We can get together this weekend, and-"

"Buffy, no," Nathan said tiredly. "I've heard this all before, and I don't think I can go through with it again."

She sat there, stunned. "B-But, then...what do you want me to do?" she asked weakly.

"Nothing. I think," Nathan sighed, "that this isn't working out."

"What do you mean, not working?" Buffy entered nervous babble mode. "It can work. We'll make it work." She reached for his hand.

Reluctantly, he pulled it away. "I'm sorry, Buffy," he said, getting up, "but I think we both need some time and some space. I know I do. Good luck," he added, and then he was gone.

Buffy blinked blankly at the table a few times before the waitress approached her table. "Coffee," she managed to say numbly before she buried her head in her hands and said the one name that always came to her in these circumstances.

"Angel..."

* * *

"So, he dumped you," Anya shrugged, sipping at her martini. "It's not like you even liked him that much in the first place."

"Some Vengeance Demon you are," Buffy pouted. "Shouldn't you be trying to get me to make some nasty wish concerning his balls right about now?"

Anya shrugged. "It's no fun when the wisher's heart isn't in it," she replied simply.

Buffy sighed. "OK, so maybe I never really liked him that much," she conceded, "but at least he was better than Ryan..."

Anya cringed at the name of Buffy's ex-husband. "Now, there's a man I wouldn't mind doing some vengeance on," she commented. "Why you ever agreed to marry him is beyond me."

"I was all confused after the Angel thing, part two," Buffy admitted. "And needy. I wanted someone who would take care of me."

"Which, of course, meant you had to marry a domineering, 'women in the kitchen' bastard," Anya exclaimed, still enraged. "I mean, what was that?"

"Me caving in and realizing that I'd never be happy?" Buffy suggested.

"There's a difference between being constantly miserable and not being happy," Anya scolded.

"Yeah," Buffy sighed, thinking wistfully of her lost love.

Anya frowned in response. "You don't blame Angel nearly enough for how much he messed up your life. There's someone else I wouldn't mind doing a spot of vengeance on," she announced, draining the last of her drink.

"Oh, let Angel get on with his new life," Buffy said bitterly. "After all he's been through, he deserves it."

"You're too forgiving," Anya decided. "You blame everything on yourself, when-"

"This is my fault," Buffy insisted. "I made my bed. Now I have to lie in it."

"God, don't you ever get tired of being a martyr?" Anya rolled her eyes.

Buffy cast her an annoyed look.

"What?" Anya protested. "I'm sure he'd agree with me."

"I'm not going to ever find anyone who can replaced him," Buffy insisted, hating herself for getting into this argument again but not being able to help herself.

"You don't replace people," Anya rolled her eyes. "You just move on."

"From your soulmate?" Buffy protested.

Anya groaned. "Right, like I haven't heard that one before..."

"This is different from you and Xander," Buffy insisted. "You don't understand. He was the only one who ever really understood me, who accepted me for what I am, who knew the real me."

"And I felt the exact same way with Xander," Anya countered, "but it didn't stop him from leaving me at the altar."

Buffy sighed. "Can we just not argue about this?" she requested. "We haven't seen each other for weeks. I'm sure we have other things to discuss."

"You're the one who brought up exes," Anya pointed out, "what with your new one and all."

Buffy ignored the comment. "So, where'd you go off to this time?" she changed the topic of conversation.

"Demon dimension two worlds over and three up," Anya reminisced. "They have these things there - like giant catfish but inside-out and covered with defensive parasols. It was a great time...if you discount the large, somewhat stern Jack-In-The-Box junipers..."

"Uh-huh," Buffy looked at the Vengeance Demon like she was nuts. "So, vengeance served?"

"I'm back on call, amn't I?" Anya answered before frowning. "And you shouldn't ask me that. It's strange and somewhat alarming, like you're going to slay me or something."

"What part of 'retired' don't you understand?" Buffy assured her.

"The part where you still go out and kill things every night," Anya answered readily enough.

"Anya," Buffy informed her sternly, "you're the only one of the Scoobies left. There's no way I'm going to slay you."

"Not even if I staked your 'soulmate'?" Anya just couldn't leave that scab unpicked.

"Anya..." Buffy warned.

"Right," Anya agreed perkily. "So what have you been doing...being here and all..."

"Work, getting dumped, slayage," Buffy sighed. "That pretty much covers it."

"How...interesting..."

Anya was trying, she really was. Buffy had to give her that much. In the days right after the Hellmouth was closed for good, neither of them had really bothered to be civil to each other. Which, Buffy supposed, was reasonable given how shattered the experience had left both of them.

To this day, she could still hear the screams, echoing throughout the ruins of the old high-school as the Hellmouth was finally sealed with its last sacrifice...

"You're remembering again," Anya said with a kindness in her voice that Buffy had never noticed prior to The End.

"I am," Buffy sighed. "I just wish..." That night she had gone back to the empty crypt, hoping against all hope that Spike would be back, that he would heal her like he had after she'd come back from the grave. Hell, that he would just hold her again, take her into his arms, tell her that he loved her...

"Yes?" Anya's ears had perked up at the sound of those potent words.

"Nothing," Buffy caught herself in time. "No wishing here."

Anya pouted. "You're no fun," she complained.

"Just keep the vengeance confined to the demon dimensions, and I won't get any less fun," Buffy countered.

"See? There you go with the threatening slayage again! I think your latest ex, Brad...or, er, Brad..." Anya paused, frowning as she tried to remember the inconsequential name.

"Nathan," Buffy reminded her.

"Whatever...was right," Anya finished. "You are working too hard." She shifted her shoulders uncomfortably. "You're getting all slay-happy again. It's like after-" She cut herself off when she realized where that train of thought was going.

Buffy let it slide. "Y'know," she thought aloud, "maybe you're right. I do have two weeks vacation coming up, and there is this ski lodge-"

"See, there you go."

"-that's having a demon problem. I was going to advise them to go elsewhere for help, but..."

Anya sighed. "What part of 'vacation' don't you understand? You're supposed to have fun, not kill things."

"But killing things is what I do for fun," Buffy insisted.

Anya mock-scowled at her. "It sounds pretty fishy to me...and not inverted-catfish fishy."

"Huh?" Buffy blinked before shaking her head. "And this from someone who writes off all of her inter-dimensional traveling expenses as business trips?" she pointed out.

"Those salamanders were vital for inventory," Anya insisted. "And they just don't grow like that in this dimension."

"Uh-huh." Buffy was lost again.

"Although," Anya said thoughtfully, "I suppose a working vacation is better than no vacation at all...unless it's to the former Hellmouth. You do realize that I still get complaints about you slaying demon tourists, right?"

"He was engulfing a six-year-old in cytoplasm!" Buffy protested.

"I still say you would make a lot more money if you just posed for the pictures instead," Anya continued to rattle on. "Just think! A former Vampire Slayer on a former Hellmouth. We can charge ten bucks a shot. I could manage, of course, order some merchandise - t-shirts, coffee mugs, those little things with the bobble heads and the eyes that move around..."

"I'm not posing for demon family albums," Buffy insisted for the umpteenth time.

Anya shrugged. "Your loss...or, actually, mine as well, but you're all morbid and moody, so I won't complain."

"I am not-!" Buffy began but was cut off by the sound of an inter-dimensional beeper playing the tune of 'I'll Fly Away'.

"This was supposed to be my night off!" Anya exclaimed in irritation before turning back to Buffy apologetically. "Sorry to cut and run, but duty calls."

"It's all right," Buffy assured her. "We'll have to do this again..."

"Soon," Anya promised with a wave before vanishing in a white light.

Buffy sighed and looked at the empty space across from her, the straw in Anya's glass still vibrating slightly from where Anya had just dropped it. The Vengeance Demon had only been gone a minute, and already Buffy felt the loneliness creep back into her. She was used to it now, though.

The real challenge had been the Year Of Hell. So many people gone from her life in such rapid succession: Giles, Spike, Tara, Xander, Willow, Dawn...

This last one was the only one she could really do anything about, but ever since Dawn had fled her custody she'd been implacable about reconciling. And once Dawn hit eighteen, it had been impossible. Buffy had recently managed to get a phone number somewhere in New York, but Dawn hadn't returned her calls.

Not that Buffy could blame her after all that had happened...

But now, when she was alone, sitting in the dark of the Bronze, she felt the effects the most. Despite Anya's reassurances, she had pushed people away, and now she was stuck with the aftermath.

The band on stage shifted to a heavily rhythmic number, the bass pulsing through the darkened club, making the whole place vibrate with the vitality of youth. It made Buffy feel like a dinosaur.

A little-known side-effect of Slayer healing had slowed down her aging process - although she doubted many Slayers lived long enough to find out about it. Probably none. But it made her look not much older than the kids here. However, she still felt her age in every muscle of her tired body and in her tired heart most of all. She'd seen more than any of these kids would see in their entire lives.

Plus, it just sucked to think that she was probably the oldest person in this place...

Time to reclaim my youth...

She got up and headed for the dance floor, scanning the crowd, searching, searching... A smile lit up her face as she watched the line of one man's back. He was just her type, good height, good build, carried himself right.

He turned then, and she got a look at his face. Good, he was part of the older crowd, college or graduate school age. She didn't care how youthful she looked; the idea of picking up high-school students gave her the creeps. Cute Guy's face was disappointing, of course, but then she could never have what she wanted.

He watched her approach with obvious interest, a smile brightening his face.

"Hi, cutie," Buffy said confidently, coming to a halt in front of him.

"Hi, yourself."

OK, so his voice was blah. Definitely no tingles going down her spine. But she didn't plan on doing much talking anyway, so that was all right.

"Wanna dance?" she inquired coquettishly.

"Sure," he agreed, extending his hand to her.

She took it and followed him out onto the floor. Strobe lights flashed around them as Buffy wrapped her arms about his waist, molding her body to his. Their hips began gyrating slowly, moving to the sensual beat.

"You got a name?" he had to practically shout over the usual Bronze racket.

"Buffy," she informed him. "You?"

"Tyler."

A blah name, too. Nothing wrong with it, of course, but it wasn't the sort of name that drew you in, intrigued you, made you want to learn more...

Fortunately, the racket on the dance floor halted any further conversation at the moment. The place was packed tonight, and they wouldn't even have been able to hear the music were it not for the deep bass that vibrated through the floor in time with the beat.

Buffy turned her back to her dancing partner, grinding her hips back against his, closing her eyes against the prisma-colored flashing lights above the floor. Blinded, her other senses just became that more intense.

She'd made a good match with the build, she decided. She didn't usually allow herself to indulge like this. Generally, she chose guys that weren't anything like him, a way to break free of the past that haunted her every day. But, now, rejected by the 'normal' human guy once more, she just wanted a fraction of the old fire back, just a taste of what it had been like with him. And, really, what harm could it do just to pretend for a little while?

If she didn't think about it, she could almost make herself believe it was him, that his hands were gripping her hips, that it was his hair her hands were running through.

A pause in the beat, a breath of quiet slipping through the normal chatter of the crowd, and a name slipped past her lips.

"Spike..."

Unfortunately, her partner heard it and halted his motions.

She turned to face him apologetically then, suddenly noticing all the telltale flaws in his appearance. Hair blond, but not shocking white. Leather jacket short and trendy, not long and battle-worn. Too soft cheekbones, too pale eyes, too straight lips. All in all, not Spike, not even close...

"I-I'm sorry," Buffy mumbled, brushing past him and off of the dance floor, dashing out of the club, home, tears streaming down her face.

* * *

The next morning she got up, reaffirmed her decision, and reached for the phone.

"Hello, Ms. Danvers?" she said into the receiver. "This is Buffy Summers. I just wanted to let you know that, yes, I can help you with your problem. I'll arrive this Sunday as we discussed."

She hung up the phone after she'd left the message and stared into the small treasure box she kept on the shelf next to her bed.

Anya was right. She needed to get out of Sunnydale for a while, take a break from her normal routine, and escape all the ghosts of the past that lingered here. Most of all, what she needed to escape was the memory of him, battered and bloody, looking up at her with such heartbreak and betrayal, the image that haunted her every night when she closed her eyes...



Chapter 3: Near Misses

Dawn flicked on the turn signal in her beaten old Chevy and turned off of the highway at the exit to Black Hills Falls. The head that lay beside her on the seat stirred in response, and the deathly still body of her partner finally showed signs of life.

With a lion-sized yawn, Spike finally fully returned to the land of the unliving. He smacked his lips a couple of times, ran a hand through his spiky platinum hair, and wearily sat up once more.

"Are we there yet?" he asked for the umpteenth time, sounding for all the world like an impatient six-year-old on his way to Disneyland.

Dawn grinned at the image that thought invoked. "We're at the town," she agreed. "I wanna stop for gas before we head up to the lodge, though." She cast a sly look Spike's way. "Y'know, if you hadn't made us take this gas-guzzler, we'd be there already."

Spike's eyes widened in horror. "My Baby will never be driven in snow!" he said, terrified for the health of the '91 BMW he'd managed to acquire in mint condition at dirt-cheap price.

Dawn merely chuckled and rolled her eyes. She could still remember the evening when Spike had excitedly dragged her out of the office, puffed up as proudly as a peacock, and patted the black hood of his recent acquisition. Dawn acknowledged that it was a nice car, but Spike's pampering of it verged on comical at times. Although, given that the New York winters had rusted out her own car to the point where she was afraid to wash it lest the body fall apart, maybe he did have a point.

"Don't worry," she assured him, patting his hand condescendingly. "Your Baby's safe in the garage where I can't get my evil hands on it."

Spike humphed at her casual disregard for such a lovely vehicle and sulked even more when the gas station they pulled into didn't have opaque overhead protection that would allow him to leave the vehicle. A bit of magic added to the tinted windows made the Chevy itself safe for flammable vamps while looking perfectly normal.

"You want anything?" Dawn inquired, getting out of the car.

"Coffee," Spike groaned, "and those chips that have all the different flavors mixed together."

"Excess caffeine and combo snack foods for the vamp who can't decide," Dawn grinned. "Got it. Try not to burn up in the sun." With that, she slammed the door and moved to pump the gas.

Spike shifted about in the front seat uncomfortably. Long car trips always made him edgy. He needed room to stretch out and some way to release all the pent up energy that accumulated within him during the day. He greatly pitied Dawn for the ultra-hyperactive vampire she was going to have to put up with that evening.

He heard the sound of the gas pump shutting off outside and impatiently watched Dawn head for the building. His foot was tapping out a rapid staccato on the floor, and his fingers were twitching, and.dammit. He couldn't do a sodding thing about it. There was only one solution for this type of problem - try to sleep some more and hope that it'd be sunset by the time he woke up.

He flopped back down lengthwise across the front seat just as a blue SUV pulled up to the pump across from him.

* * *

Buffy let out a sigh of irritation as she pulled the blue SUV she'd rented into the gas station. She didn't need the gas - although she undoubtedly would if she didn't stop winding through all those mountain roads, lost - but there was nowhere else at the station to park.

Angrily, she slammed door of her vehicle shut and stalked into the building. "Cascade Mountain Lodge," she asked the young Asian woman at the cash register. "Where is it?"

"You just have to take 35 straight down to Highway E," she began. "Then-"

"June?" the voice of one of the other station attendants shouted out.

"Just a second," she gave Buffy an apologetic smile. "I'm with a customer, Stan!" she called out to the back of the store in irritation.

"Are we out of those combo chip bags?" Stan called back.

"If there aren't any on the shelf, then, yes, we're out!" She rolled her eyes at her coworker's incompetence.

Buffy gave her a sympathetic smile.

"You turn right and take Highway E north for about a mile," she continued her directions, "and then you turn left onto Cascade Mountain road. It'll be the first left turn, but you'll have to watch out for it because the sign's down."

"Hence, why I could find it," Buffy said in realization. "Thanks," she added with a smile. "And, where's your bathroom?"

The cashier dug around in a drawer behind the counter and pulled out a wooden block with 'WOMEN' written on it in blue permanent marker, a shiny gold key attached to the end. "It's right at the end of the beverage aisle," she pointed.

"Thanks," Buffy repeated, taking the key and heading for the restroom.

* * *

A Key of a different sort stood one aisle over, debating her purchase. Spike may have been a hundred-year-old immortal being, but he was mighty particular about his snack foods.

What the hell? Dawn shrugged, picking up a bag of each of the individual components of Spike's favorite junky combo. We'll probably need some extra munchies in the hotel room, anyway. She drew the line at mixing them all together for him, though. After all, she wasn't his mommy.

She turned into the beverage aisle just as the door to the women's room shut in front of her. Paying it no mind, she quickly picked up a bottle of Evian water for herself and poured a cup of decaf - Spike was hyper enough as it was, and while he claimed that he could taste the difference between decaf and normal coffee, his taste buds weren't actually sensitive enough to tell the difference, and Dawn knew it.

Satisfied with her purchases, Dawn approached the counter.

"This it?" June asked.

"And pump number six," Dawn agreed. "By the way, do you know the route to Cascade Mountain Lodge?"

June wondered if they should just hand out little instruction placards.

* * *

Buffy shuddered as she wiped her hands dry on a course white paper towel. Gas station restrooms were always the nastiest places. This one had at least been roach-free, but the powdery cracks in the walls left little doubt that the persistent buggers inhabited the room when no one was looking.

The message written on the door of the stall in the precise black ink of the true graffiti artist, proclaiming 'The rat queen lives!' was even less encouraging. She once again cursed the elusive lodge whose restrooms would undoubtedly have been much cleaner.

She approached the counter just as a woman, clad all in black and hefting a rather large brown bag stepped out the door. "Thanks a lot," Buffy said once more to the cashier as the other woman's exit set off the tinkling of the door chimes.

"Don't mention it," June agreed with a smile, returning the key to its drawer.

Buffy escaped the gloomy little station and headed back to her rental vehicle, pausing only briefly to shake her head at the rusted out Chevy parked across from her. At least I'm not stuck driving that, she consoled herself before hopping into the blue SUV and driving off.

* * *

"Dammit, Spike!" Dawn exclaimed in irritation, searching around on the floor of the vehicle together with her frustrating friend. "How do you 'lose' a lit cigarette?"

"You threw the pretzels right at my head!" Spike retorted, feeling around under his seat.

"Only because you were smoking with the window closed," Dawn defended herself.

"You want me to burn alive?"

"You couldn't wait five minutes?"

"'ll have you know that-ow!" Spike whapped his smoking hand against the seat several times, extinguishing the flame that had singed it.

Dawn calmly reached down, found the cigarette, and tossed it out the door. "You are so hopeless," she announced, turning her keys in the ignition.

Just as her car started, there was a huge squeal of tires on slick pavement.

"I didn't do it!" Dawn leapt back from the steering wheel as it had just sprouted eyeballs.

"No, genius up there did it," Spike commented, sipping his coffee. "'ave I lectured you lately about SUVs?" he inquired innocently.

Dawn merely groaned. "Only about a thousand times," she whined, heading out of the parking lot.

"Well, 's true," Spike countered. "I mean, look at the size 'f that thing." He gestured to the blue vehicle in front of them. "The only reason anythin' needs to be that big 's to run other innocent drivers off the road. And for what? To protect some yuppie rugrats who're prob'ly better off as lunch. An' the bint obviously 'as no clue how to drive."

"As opposed to you," Dawn teased, "who would never get caught in a police chase because you were going fifty the wrong way down a one-way street."

"I was chasin' a were-cheetah!" Spike insisted, wide-eyed. "An' there was no danger. I have excellent reflexes."

Dawn merely rolled her eyes.

* * *

Buffy glanced back in the rear-view mirror to see a woman with brown hair and dark sunglasses who seemed to be arguing with the thin air beside her.

Crazies, Buffy her head. And from New York, too. She checked the license plate. No wonder.

For a moment, a second alternative crossed her mind, but she shook her head. "Nah."

* * *

"Call Siggy," Dawn ordered, "and see if she's gotten any info from the Council yet."

"'m not your bleedin' secretary," Spike crossed his arms over his chest defiantly. "You do it."

"Hello, I'm driving," Dawn pointed out.

"That's never stopped you before," Spike grumbled under his breath.

Dawn sighed. A day cramped up in a vehicle with Spike. It had to be somewhere on her list of top-ten most infuriating things to do. "Just do it," she said wearily.

"Who d'you think you are, orderin' me around?" Spike sulked.

"Your boss, for one," Dawn felt obliged to point out.

Spike muttered a bit but picked up the cell-phone and dialed Siggy's number. "Hey, li'l lamb," he said in a husky voice into the receiver. "'S the big bad wolf."

Dawn snickered.

Spike cast her a dirty look before something Siggy said caught his attention. "Uh-huh," he nodded. "Uh-huh.Uh-huh.I see.Uh-huh."

Dawn was convinced he was making his end of the conversation as cryptic as possible just to tick her off. That was the part of the Spike-as-brother analogy that always worked best - he was damn good at annoying her.

She continued to listen to Spike's vague affirmatives and occasional bizarre pet names, heading down the highway in search of their turn-off. There was a brief incident where the blue SUV in front of them suddenly hit the brakes before diving down a side road, but Dawn merely cursed and swerved before continuing on their way.

"Ta then, luv." Spike blew a kiss into the phone before he hung up.

"Well?" Dawn asked curiously.

"She's still searchin' for a lonely, horny British male to get her into the Watcher's archives," Spike explained.

"Huh," Dawn said with a wicked grin. "I guess you don't fit the 'get into the archives' part. Too bad, 'cause otherwise it's a perfect description of you."

Spike merely huffed and frowned at the highway intersection up ahead. "Oi, you've gone too far," he pointed out. "The turn-off's s'posed to back that way."

Dawn frowned. "I didn't see any." She remembered where the other vehicle had turned in front of her and sighed. "Right," she agreed, making a screeching U-turn at the intersection to go down Highway E in the other direction.

"And you say my drivin's dangerous." Spike grumbled.

* * *

The old woman at the desk looked up to see the peppy blond in a light pink ski jacket with white fake fur trim enter the lodge. Tourists, she sighed inwardly before plastering a smile on her face to greet the young woman. "May I help you?" she asked politely.

Buffy sat her two bags down on the floor and pulled off the thick mittens she was wearing to combat the cold. "My name is Buffy Summers," she agreed.

The old woman appraised her a second time in surprise. This was a demon hunter? "Yes, I believe I talked to you on the phone," she nodded. "My name is Ms. Danvers. I own the lodge."

"Ah, you're my employer," Buffy said with a bright grin, shaking the old woman's hand and studying her more intently. She was frail and hunched over, but Buffy had no doubt that she had once been a tall woman. Her hair was thin and white, her face deeply wrinkled, and her eyes had deep circles beneath them, as if she hadn't been getting enough sleep. Probably due to the string of deaths. "Has anything else happened since we last talked?" Buffy inquired, signing the guest book.

The old woman nodded. "Everyone's gathering together for a conference this evening," she stated. "It meets at eight in the recreation room. Please, be punctual."

Buffy blinked. "Meeting? Everyone?"

"Everything will be explained then," Ms. Danvers assured her. She handed Buffy her key card. "Your room is 123."

"Good, easy to remember," Buffy smiled, looking at the hotel map the other woman pointed to. "Eight then? In the rec room?" She located that on the map as well.

"Thank you so much for coming, dear," Ms. Danvers agreed with a slight smile. "You have no idea how much it's.appreciated."

Buffy just waved, lugged up her heavy bags without the slightest effort and headed off for her room.

* * *

And Ms. Danvers turned when the door opened once more, ushering in a pair of figures. Now, these were what demon hunters were supposed to look like. The pair was clad from head to toe in black, each sporting black boots, jeans, shirts, and leather jackets. The woman's clothes were tight and trendy, and her long auburn hair was tied back in a no-nonsense ponytail. The man's shirt highlighted his defined musculature, and his bleached white hair and scarred eyebrow gave him a dangerous edge. The two moved perfectly in time with each other, obviously from years of fighting in sync.

Ms. Danvers smiled up at them. "Your names?"

"Dawn and William Summers," Dawn provided, turning back to Spike. "You're sure?" she asked.

He nodded. "Place looks bloody familiar. Could've stopped by durin' my travels with Dru, I s'pose." he added thoughtfully.

"Surprisingly few neck trauma reports in the past fifty years," Dawn shot back, signing the guest book. She turned to Ms. Danvers then. "You got us the two-room suite, right?" she inquired.

The innkeeper nodded. "It's just the two of you?" she frowned, slightly baffled as to why the couple would need the second room. "Because if you have any children-?"

Spike gulped. "Children?" he repeated in disbelief.

"The hubby's holding out, huh?" Ms. Danvers gave Dawn a knowing smile. Well, that, and he's a vampire.

Dawn's face reddened as well. "Um, Spike's my brother," she clarified, embarrassed.

Ms. Danvers blushed at her mistake as well. "Oh, sorry, dear," she winced apologetically. "I didn't know." Especially with him being dead and all.

"Right then," Spike had the sudden urge to flee.

"Why don't you go bring our bags in?" Dawn suggested helpfully.

Of course, Spike just had to be difficult about everything. "'m not your bleedin' valet," he grumbled under his breath before going off to do just that.

Dawn rolled her eyes before noticing Ms. Danvers' nametag. "Ah, we talked on the phone," she shook the other woman's hand.

"Indeed, we did," Ms. Danvers agreed.

"So, anything new happened?" Dawn inquired as Spike walked by with an armful of bags, muttering under his breath the whole time.

"You'll get a full report this evening at the meeting," Ms. Danvers explained. "The recreation room at eight." She went back to search for the keycard to room 121.

" 'Meeting'?" Dawn repeated curiously. "With whom?"

"I've brought in several other specialists to help solve the problem," Ms. Danvers said simply. "It will all be explained at the meeting."

"Right." Dawn decided to let it drop. She was tried from the long drive and the aggravating vampire in the car. Investigation could occur after sleep. She took the key from the innkeeper.

"I'll see you both at eight," Ms. Danvers said with a smile just as Spike entered with the last of their bags.

Dawn rolled her eyes as he unceremoniously dumped them in the middle of the lobby floor right next to the rest of their stuff. "Think we brought enough weapons?" Dawn couldn't help but tease.

Spike gave her a mock-offended huff. "No such thing 's too many weapons," he insisted.

"You are aware that, as the woman, it's my job to pack a ridiculous amount of stuff, not yours?" she inquired sarcastically.

He merely grumbled in response, his body taut with the lack of activity during the last day and his mind obviously just as agitated. "Which room?" he demanded gruffly.

Dawn handed him the key. "121. I'm going to get a quick look at this place before crashing - guarantee that we haven't actually walked onto the set of 'The Shinning'."

Spike chuckled at that. The carpets were a pale blue-gray, instead of that creepy red, but he'd had similar thoughts when he entered the hotel. Too much space, too few people, too fake a pleasant ambience. "'S long as Jack Nicholson doesn't start chewin' the scenery," he agreed, making the first haul down to their room.

Dawn smiled at that before venturing in search of the recreation room.

* * *

Yum, was Buffy's first thought as she stepped out of her room and caught sight of the sexy, jean-clad ass of the man in the suite next to her just as he closed the door behind them. Spike-quality yum. She hadn't seen a butt that nice in years; unfortunately, her brief affair with the vamp had left her with impossibly high standards of virtually every sort.

She headed back out to the lobby then, resigning herself to the task of lugging the rest of her luggage back to her room. Hmm, I wonder if that's why they call it 'luggage'? She wondered absentmindedly. Something of the lugging. And people mock me for my use of 'slayage'?

The lobby was conspicuously empty as she went through; even the woman at the front desk was gone. Now, that must be the world's most boring, sucky job.

Liking the ambience even less when there was no one there - there was something about big, open spaces with suspiciously cheerful ambience that seriously wigged her out - she trotted out to her vehicle, not even noticing the battered Chevy parked beside it.

Of course, she admitted to herself, it could just be because of all the people that have died in this place. But she was used to places where people died a lot. She Who Hangs Out In Cemeteries, right? This place felt different. Pain, anguish, torment. It almost seemed like the walls were whispering to her, calling to her, pleading.

She gave the empty coffee cup in the back seat a suspicious look. That's what I get for O.D.ing on caffeine, she chided herself before overloading her arms with various suitcases and returning to the building. Stupid tingly senses.

* * *

The small woman carrying so many bags that Spike couldn't even see her face collided with him, just as he was bending over to move the last of his and Dawn's things to the common room of their suite. An explosion of suitcases followed as their bags scattered to the four corners of the lobby in a confetti shower of luggage.

"Bloody 'ell!" Spike groused. "Watch wear you're goin', you daft chit!"

Buffy blinked from where she'd landed on her ass right behind a rather large suitcase. No. Way. She shook her head, convinced she was hearing things - maybe this is part of the haunting. - and rose to her feet to see.

There was a moment of complete, beautiful silence.

The two dumbstruck estranged lovers gaped in unison before both simultaneously moved to rub their eyes. When the sight of the other persisted, Buffy cautiously reached out to touch his sleeve and.

The same cool leather she remembered. At the same time, Spike felt the familiar heat of her hand.

There was an awkward pause, and then:

"Spike?"

"Buffy?"



Chapter 4: Meet the Competition

"Spike." This was said with a surprised smile now as Buffy fully absorbed the fact that, yes, he was really here.

"It's really you?" Spike's voice sounded so soft, almost hopeful.

Buffy managed a wry laugh at that. "I was just about to ask you the same question," she agreed. All these years apart, and we're still so in sync with each other.

A slightly amused glint entered Spike's eyes as well. "So.uh," he ran a nervous hand through his hair, "why're you here?"

"Some demon-y problem," she rolled her eyes. "I'm here to kill it. You know, the usual."

"Oh."

God, he sounded so disappointed. Why did he sound so disappointed? "What about you?" she inquired.

"The same." His face was closed off from her now, the hint of hidden emotion she'd seen earlier gone.

She took a moment to study him, re-memorizing all of his handsome features.

It had been about two months after Dawn had finally left for good that she'd first had the uncontrollable craving to see him again, to just know that, yes, he really had existed. Six hours had been spent frantically searching through the old photo albums in the basement, desperate for just one image of him she could hold onto.

What she had found left a sinking feeling in her stomach. She, Willow, Xander, Giles, Dawn, Tara.hell, even Anya had all gone through various stages where they took pictures like mad. There were literally dozens of albums detailing practically every moment of Scooby existence. All sorts of various groups of people smiling for the camera - in her house, at the old Magic Box, in Giles' apartment. Hundreds, maybe thousands of photos. But not one of them had been of the face she was longing to remember.

She had cried that night for the first time since he'd left. It had never really struck her before just how much of an outsider they'd made him so that, on none of those dozens of occasions, no one held ever turned the camera on him and said "Hey, Spike, smile!" in an effort to snap a candid shot.

The one image she did recover was of her and Riley holding each other tightly and smiling with the most fake smiles she'd ever seen. The photo had obviously been taken in her freshman year of college since there in the corner of the background was Spike, leaning against the doorframe to Giles' kitchenette, his head tilted away from the camera.

It was ironic that all that effort went into preserving something so utterly meaningless as the memory of her relationship with Riley, when the man she wanted to remember only existed in the background, as a mistake, something no one ever considered might be important.

It had taken over two years for her to stop feeling silly about the whole thing and have the image of Spike blown up and her and Riley cut from the picture. Still, the picture only showed the side of his face, his chin tilted away, blocking most of his features. She could see the sharp line of one cheekbone, the cut of his chin, and - although she still wasn't sure whether she was hallucinating it or not - the slight curve of his eyelashes against his cheek.

It hadn't been nearly enough to remember him, even though she'd tried so hard.

But, now, as he stood before her once more, her mind's picture of him could once again turn vivid. Slight errors and exaggerations were corrected, gaps were filled, and before she knew it the fine masterpiece had been restored, more beautiful and right than even she could have imagined.

"You.uh." Her mind was scrambling desperately for something to say and fighting the nearly uncontrollable urge to fling herself into his arms. ".So, you still kill demons?" she finally finished lamely.

"Yeah."

This was different. She hadn't remembered him this cool, this closed-off. She remembered vibrant, unquenchable passion, whether it was in a smoldering glance he longingly sent her way or in the way his hands caressed her as he made love to her. She didn't think she'd imagined that.

"So, where did you go after.?" I beat you to a bloody pulp in a back alley and left you for dead. She flinched inwardly.

"Around," he gestured vaguely. "You?"

"Still on the Hellmouth," she said with a fake laugh. "Only, not a Hellmouth anymore.mostly just a demon tourist trap now."

"Heard about that," Spike nodded.

He hadn't always been this quiet, had he? Surely, he hadn't always been this quiet. She remembered him constantly talking, flirtation and innuendo in everything he said, harsh truths that she hadn't been ready to hear whispered against her ear. But she was ready now. She wanted.

"Well, fancy meetin' you." Spike picked up Dawn's last two bags and hauled them over his shoulders. "Good luck with the slayin'."

And, with that, he walked off.

And Buffy just stood there, stunned.

* * *

"Absolute emergency, Holden!" Buffy practically screeched into the phone, hands shaking slightly as she did so.

"Buffy?" the therapist said in slight confusion. "I'm with another client right now."

"He's here," Buffy retorted. "I just met him in the hotel lobby."

Holden Webster's brow furrowed at this. Buffy had first come to him for help when she couldn't stand her marriage any longer. In the time since, she'd been one of his most difficult patients, the seemingly endless list of nightmarish relationships each leaving deep emotional scars. But nothing had ever effected her so much as her regrets about him.

"I'll be done in ten minutes," he assured her. "I'll call you right back."

"You're got the inn number, right?" Buffy asked wearily. "I'm in room 123."

"Yeah," Holden agreed, "I've got it."

* * *

Dawn had returned to their suite expecting to find Spike literally bouncing off the walls, trying to drag her off to the town for some violence and mayhem. What she hadn't been expecting was Spike, collapsed in the center of the room, tears streaking down his cheeks and body convulsing uncontrollably with shivers.

Instantly, she ran over to him, and she couldn't even have said how they managed it, but somehow they became wrapped in a veritable tangle of limbs, him whimpering softly as he tried to bury himself in her embrace.

"Shh, Spike." Dawn soothed, stroking his hair comfortingly. "What happened?" She felt her shirt dampen with tears but didn't care if it was drenched. All that mattered was.

"Buffy."

Dawn started in surprise at that. He never mentioned her unless he absolutely had to. "What?" she asked, confused.

"Buffy." He gulped and shut his eyes, as if steeling himself up. "Buffy.is here," he finally finished.

Dawn's face whitened in response. "Here?!" she repeated, just short of panic herself. "How? Why?"

"I ran into 'er in the lobby," Spike answered shakily, running a hand through his spiky hair. "She said she was here to kill the nasty, too."

Dawn's face hardened. "This is our case," she insisted. "So she can just go home."

"No," Spike shook his head. "Let her handle it. We need to go-"

"Did she hurt you?" Dawn asked, suddenly concerned, looking him over. "She didn't touch you, did she? 'Cause, so help me." She left the threat unfinished.

He shook his head meekly. "I just can't." he began helplessly.

"You can," she assured him, squeezing his hand gently. "C'mon, I know you're strong enough to beat this. I've seen it. We'll just go to the meeting tonight, work something out, and if we don't like the way things turn out, then we'll leave tomorrow."

Spike calmed at this and seemed to compose himself, giving her a reassuring little nod.

She smiled in response, placing an affectionate kiss on his cheek. "It'll be all right," she insisted.

As the pair disentangled themselves from the floor, the hints of red light that had been flickering about the corners of the room, just out of sight, turned a sickly green color for a moment before bursting back into red and vanishing through the walls.

The Key and the Vampire remained oblivious.

* * *

"My name," the pompous British man at the head of the room said, straightening his finely manicured suit as he did so, "is Simon Whitteborn, attorney at law. I represent the Danvers estate and will supervise this investigation."

Spike rolled his eyes, leaned back up against the 'no smoking' sign, and lit his cigarette, decadently blowing a stream of smoke into the recreation room.

Simon shot him a dirty look as did the female of the pair of D'vorak Demons that sat on the couch next to him, her antennae twitching blue in irritation. No one else seemed to mind.

"You ask us to solve your problem," a bored-looking woman with long red hair, tight leopard-print clothes that showed off her shapely figure, and a wine glass in one hand replied, "yet you intend to step on our feet as well?" She took another dainty sip from her glass, her dark eyes searching out Spike's over the rim and giving him an approving look.

"I assure you, Miss Duvall," Simon huffed slightly, "it is in the best interest of everyone involved. Previous independent hunters have met with.unpleasant ends."

"Yeah, that's what I want to hear about," Buffy said determinedly, arms crossed over her chest in a no-nonsense manner. "'Cause I was under the distinct impression that I was the first - and only - demon hunter being called in."

"Second that," a tall, Hispanic man wearing dark sunglasses said from his position sitting atop the pool table.

"Yes, well," Simon fidgeted slightly, "I am sorry that we misrepresented our deal to you, but I assure you all that it was most necessary."

"I'd be a lot more assured if you explained why it was 'most necessary'," Dawn said pointedly, leaning back against the wall beside Spike.

"The problem we face is multifold in its complexities." the lawyer began.

Buffy instantly tuned out. Aside from the observation that British lawyers could drone on and on just as long as British watchers could, there was nothing to keep her interested in the endless double-talk tirade of the older man. Especially when she had so many other things to think about.

It was a good thing she'd gotten to talk with Holden for a good hour or so - long-distance charges firmly attached to her therapy bill - because, if she hadn't freaked enough at seeing Spike once again, seeing Dawn would have pushed her right over the deep end. Fortunately, Holden had always had a rather amazing ability to cut right through all her emotions and make her look at the truth. Actually, he kind of reminded her of Spike in that way, only without the whole unholy temptation factor that had always caused her to lash out at the vamp.

Now, however, she did as Holden had suggested and really studied the black-clad pair of demon hunters leaning casually back against the door. Don't deny the past, but don't pretend that things haven't changed, either. Learn everything possible, watch for reactions, don't jump to conclusions and let things balloon out of control.

It was frightening how often she had to repeat this over and over again to herself, especially when dealing with Spike.

Dawn was the easier of the two, though, so Buffy started with her. Her first reaction was 'where has my little kid sister gone?' Dawn seemed commanding, confident, in control. She was asking tough questions, demanding that she got the answers she needed, and - believe it or not - she actually seemed to have the authority of her and Spike's team.

Buffy could still remember when Spike had been babysitting her little sister, and now she was. Grown-up. That was it. She was a grown-up now, and a strong one at that. Buffy hoped she wasn't deluding herself when she thought she saw a bit of herself in her sister. Besides the whole demon hunting thing, of course.

That had her a bit panicked, but for all she knew Dawn could've been fighting demons for over five years now. Buffy had to face the fact that she didn't really know what her sister had become or who she was. Whoever she was, though, she didn't seem to need the protection that Buffy instinctively wanted to give her.

"Now, if I can have your attention, please," Simon said wearily, realizing that he'd lost half his audience in the interim. Buffy, Spike, the woman Buffy had labeled 'Leopard-Skinned Skank-Ho', and that D'vorak Demon that had been giving her a weird look all turned their attention back to the matter at hand. "The situation is as follows," Simon began, gesturing with a pointer to the board beside him.

"October 15th. A newlywed couple from Vermont moves into room 242. At midnight, the husband - Arthur Anderson - leaves. The next morning, his young wife, Emily, is found by one of the maids. She managed," he grimaced slightly, "to hang herself with a bed sheet."

"Maybe the hubby killed her," a gruff chuckle sounded from the far side of the room.

Spike cocked one eyebrow in the direction of the three men gathered by the dartboard. They'd been too preoccupied with talking among themselves to contribute anything up until this point. Spike had been possessed with an instant distaste for them. They seemed to represent everything that annoyed him about Americans - loud, rude, stupid, ignorant beyond belief.and with absolutely nothing but deluded macho-ness to back up their images.

Simon gripped the bridge of his nose. Had he had glasses and the certain habits of another Englishman, he would have undoubtedly been cleaning them. "The police investigated the matter," he informed the group. "Mrs. Anderson died at approximately 3:30 in the morning - long after her husband left. Apparently, the two of them had had a.conflict earlier in the evening in which Mr. Anderson had abruptly declared that he actually preferred men and had only married her because his parents had pressured him into it. The death was determined to be a suicide."

He gestured to the next name and date, written neatly on his chart. "Mr. Patrick Adams, aged 58, single all his life, avid hiker and outdoorsman. Found in his room on November 1st after a large explosion. The investigating officers found that he had shot himself in the head. A note was left behind, explaining how the late Mr. Adams could no longer bear to live in a world where he was so constantly alone. His mother and sisters were completely shocked by the news."

The next date, November 9th. "Madame 'Cassandra Cleopatra'," Simon read off the name skeptically, "had apparently heard of the two recent deaths and decided it would be wise to hold a 'crossing-over with the poor, tortured souls who ended their lives so tragically'. Madame, er.Cleopatra was a wealthy enough woman that my client, Mrs. Danvers," he gestured to the innkeeper sitting beside him, "agreed to let her.experiment. At ten o'clock on the night of the 8th, Madame Cleopatra locked herself in this very room to 'speak with the spirit world'. She gave instructions that she was not to be disturbed until one. Some such nonsense about the spirits being most conversational at midnight, I believe."

Despite the lawyer's rather monotone account of the events, everyone in the room found themselves riveted to his story. Maybe it was the bit about the flaky psychic. All stories were more entertaining the minute flaky psychics entered them.

"And?" Buffy's 'Leopard-Skinned Skank-Ho' asked breathlessly.

"The door was opened at one o'clock exactly." So, maybe Simon had a bit of a dramatic sense after all. "Madame Cleopatra was found sitting directly in the center of the room, the candles around her all blown out. She was dead."

"How?" This was from the Hispanic man with the sunglasses.

"The doctor's verdict was that it was heart failure," Simon concluded. "But-"

"You should have seen the look in her eyes," Ms. Danvers spoke up for the first time. "Pure, wide-eyed horror."

The three tough guys by the dartboard shifted uncomfortably. They were used to kicking the crap out of physical threats, not facing some unknown terror.

"It was around this time that the incidents escalated," Simon continued in a voice so prim and precise that everyone wondered whether they had imagined the collective chill that had run down their spines. "A large painting fell from the wall in the restaurant, injuring one guest and breaking another's leg. Items began disappearing from various rooms, only to reappear elsewhere days later. Theft is considered unlikely in these cases since those who found the missing items in their rooms promptly returned them. There have been reports of voices - whispers - at night, encouraging the most terrible acts."

Buffy herself shivered at this, remembering her own creepy feelings when she'd first entered the place.

"But it was not until November 30th that we had our next fatality," Simon continued. "In an effort to combat the situation, an old friend of mine from the Watcher's Council-"

Surprise, surprise. Buffy, Dawn, and Spike all rolled their eyes in unison.

"-sent a rather powerful Witch's Guild psychic to investigate. That night she was cheerful, enthusiastic, and eager. The next day she was found outside, at the edge of the woods, frozen in her efforts to crawl away from the house. Cuts covered her entire body and, upon examination, it was discovered that every piece of glass in her room had been shattered."

The three men at the back of the room seemed to be getting more and more agitated as the story progressed. What the fiercest demons could not accomplish, simple fear of the unknown was doing admirably.

"December 5th marked a daughter stabbing her mother in the stomach as she slept. Afterwards, the girl could offer no explanation of why she would have done such a thing and, in fact, seemed quite traumatized by the event. She was taken to a psychiatric hospital in Denver and is still on suicide watch." Simon pulled the cover down over his chart.

"And, that," he concluded, "is why we have invited you all here tonight. Upon the advice of my friend in the Council, it has become apparent that normal methods of dealing with this.haunting are inadequate. It has killed professionals-"

"And may very well kill us, too!" One of the men in back shouted out angrily. "If you've got nothing for us, then why should we stick around and wait to die?"

"A possibility," Simon admitted, "although one that we are making well worth your while. Whoever eliminates the problem will receive the total sum of the offers that each of you has been given. That is three-hundred thousand dollars, for those of you who cannot do the maths."

This seemed to spark the interests of the three men once more. "So we just hope whatever it is knocks off the others first while we ferret the bugger out?" the loudest of the group asked.

Simon gave him a distasteful look but nodded. "Crude, but to the point," he conceded. "We are hoping there will be safety in numbers."

"But only one of us gets all that money?" Leopard-Skin was back in the conversation.

"You are encouraged to work together," Simon caught the instant looks of distaste on many faces, "although it is not required."

"What about the guests?" Buffy asked, her brow furrowed. "If this is such a big danger, why are you still letting innocent people stay here?"

"They stay at their own risk," Ms. Danvers insisted defensively. "We have made no secret of the incidents, but we cannot afford to shut down at this crucial point in the season."

"Not even if lives are at stake?" Dawn added sarcastically.

Her tone seemed to have caught the attention of the young Hispanic man on the billiard table, but his glasses concealed whatever his eyes would have given away. Spike's own eyes narrowed at him suspiciously. There was something about that guy that just didn't feel right.

"Lives will not be at stake so long as you all do your jobs," Simon insisted somewhat huffily. "If it ever seems absolutely necessary to me to shut the lodge down for the protection of its guests, it will be done. But not a second before."

"An' let me guess," Spike snorted derisively, " 'absolutely necessary' looks a lot like 'legally culpable'."

Simon didn't have a response for that. "I will expect regular reports from you all, but I will leave it to yourselves to arrange how you plan to investigate. We have compiled a list of regions within the lodge that seem particularly susceptible to this presence." He set the list on the armrest of the D'vorak Demon beside him. "However, may I suggest that you at least introduce yourselves?"

Several groans at that, especially from the back of the room.

"Fine," one of the men huffed, "name's John. This here's my brother, Bob, and our partner, Tucker." The quiet member of the group nodded sullenly. John approached the D'vorak and practically snatched the list from him. "We're scopin' out the woods, and we don't need any of you freaks'"-he cast a pointed glance in Spike's direction before turning back to look at the D'vorak pair with disdain-"help."

With that, the three of them stalked off, John tossing the list onto the table before Dawn as they walked by.

"Oh dear," Ms. Danvers seemed a bit shaken up by the rude exit.

"Er, yeah," Dawn picked up the list and scanned it. "So, as for the rest of us. Why don't we divide these places up, each see what we find, and then meet tomorrow evening to discuss it?"

"Why wait for evening?" the male D'vorak let out a yawn. "Seems like a waste of time."

His female partner gave him a nasty glare.and then flashed one at Buffy as well.

Ah, the popularity of being a Slayer. Buffy couldn't help but sigh inwardly.

"Some of us have more nocturnal schedules," Dawn argued. "Does the evening not work for anyone?"

"What I want to know," Leopard-Skin was at it again, her tone one of practiced droll refinement, "is who you are and why you think any of us should listen to you."

"Hey!" Buffy moved to speak up, but Dawn cut her off.

"My name is Dawn Summers. I've been dealing with the supernatural my entire life. And, unlike some people, I seem to be actually making a plan, instead of just making snide remarks."

That pretty much shut up any further objections from Leopard-Skin. She got approving nods from the D'vorak couple also, as well as what looked to be a lopsided smile from Sunglasses Guy. Buffy was too dumbstruck at her little sister's poise and authority to say anything.

"So," Dawn continued, scanning the list in front of her, "Spike and I will stay here tonight and hope we get a haunting."

"Spike?" Leopard-Skin looked at her blankly.

Dawn rolled her eyes and gestured to the vampire beside her. "My partner, Spike," she introduced.

"Charmed," Spike shrugged, "only.not."

"Spike indeed," Leopard-Skin practically licked her lips.

A smirk played across Spike's own lips in response, causing Buffy to completely miss what Dawn was saying.

"Huh?" she repeated dumbly.

"I just told everyone that you're Buffy," Dawn repeated. "Why don't you take the restaurant? We can get the keys to that, right?" she inquired of Simon. He nodded. "And I don't want you to do it alone." Her eyes alighted on Leopard-Skin, and she raised an inquiring eyebrow.

"Veronica," the redhead said with a bored toss of her long hair. "Veronica Duvall."

"All right," Dawn agreed. "Buffy and Veronica have the restaurant. So that leaves."

"Xel," the male of the D'vorak pair said with a smile on his face. His offered Dawn a blue-scaled hand and a charming smile. "And this is my mate, Lena."

Lena looked significantly less thrilled than Xel.although, quite likely, it was because of the look her mate flashed in the direction of Dawn's chest.

Dawn sighed inwardly and subtly stepped on Spike's foot to stop him from doing the 'big brother Neanderthal evil glare' at every guy who looked at her. "You two can take the pool room, together with.?"

"Ricardo Salvatore," the young man with the sunglasses said in a voice almost too soft to be heard. The trace of some sort of exotic accent lingered around his words, but they were still quite understandable.

Dawn gave him a little nod of acknowledgement. "We'll meet at eight tomorrow night, here once more," Dawn concluded, penning in the names by the locations. "So, are we all clear?"

"What exactly are we supposed to do?" Veronica said with an exaggerated sigh of annoyance.

Dawn cast her an equally annoyed look. "Tell us what happens, what you see. This thing seems to fall more in the poltergeist category, so swinging sharp objects isn't going to do much good. We need to figure out what it is before we can proceed, and the only way to do that is to gather more information." She gave Veronica a falsely sweet smile. "Anything else you'd like me to explain for you?"

Veronica scowled at the condescending tone but didn't say anything further.

"Then, if you don't mind," Dawn announced, "I've had a rather long day, and I'd like to have dinner before I have an equally long night. Spike?" she turned to her companion.

"Right, luv," he agreed, following her out the door.

And Buffy bit her lip. Confident, beautiful, grown-up Dawn who had loved Spike all along. Suddenly, she wondered if she was already too late. If she'd lost him long ago.

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